Shooting Back: Why Gray Ogre is Better than Survival of the Fittest

It’s pretty rare that Mike Flores and I disagree about Magical things. The last serious disagreement I can recall was at a Neutral Ground PTQ, where we disagreed over whether I should smash all the Neutral Ground faces and take the slot home to Your Move Games. Mike was understandably bitter about that one for a while. So when I read in the front-page blurb of his recent article that Mike disagreed with me – this time about the correct build for Flea Market – I had to step up.

Aside: Before diving into a Magic debate, I want to say thank you to all the StarCityGames folks who volunteered to join the YMG Evil Army and help us launch our games. I thought we’d get at least ten people and hoped for twenty, but in the end we got nearly sixty recruits. I’m glad enough to know that sixty people read my article, but to have that many people jump up and offer their help means a tremendous amount to me, to Robert and of course to Baby Jade.

Still Shameless

Thanks, Evil Army! Now watch me eat my foot.

For those of you who haven’t joined the Evil Army yet, you’re still more than welcome. And anyone going to GenCon, please stop by the YMG booth, say hi, try a game or two and pick up some free dice…or enter our $1,000 Succession tournament!

Now, on with the article.

It’s pretty rare that Mike Flores and I disagree about Magical things. The last serious disagreement I can recall was at a Neutral Ground PTQ, where we disagreed over whether I should smash all the Neutral Ground faces and take the slot home to Your Move Games. *smile* Mike was understandably bitter about that one for a while.

So when I read in the front-page blurb of his recent article that Mike disagreed with me – this time about the correct build for Flea Market – I had to step up. Judge for yourself, but I think YMG deserves the slot on this one too. We’ll start with the specific claims and then go on to a couple of other things I think are problematic (i.e. wrong) about Mike’s build:

First of all, there is the issue of speed. Artificer’s Intuition comes down on turn 2 and enables your game starting turn 3.

While strictly true, it’s not something I find terribly impressive and I suspect the speed gain is largely an illusion in many situations. Playing a main-phase spell on turn 2 and then searching for and playing a cog on turn 3 isn’t that exciting compared to what you can do without Intuition. The deck’s best possible play is usually Wayfarer’s Bauble on turn 1 and nothing on turn 2 so you can either Annul, Condescend, or pop the Bauble. The second best play is some other spellbomb on turn 1 and the same turn 2.

If you’ve got a Wayfarer’s Bauble in your opening hand, you probably don’t want to play Intuition on turn 2. If you don’t, then that’s the first thing you’ll probably want to get and you can’t use it until turn 4, i.e. the same time you can use it if you fetch it with Trinket Mage. Meanwhile, in terms of tempo, a 2/2 body on the ground is actually quite useful in some matchups. An enchantment is vastly more durable but is, as Mike points out, a purely invested card.

Put simply, both Trinket Mage and Intuition involve spending three mana to search for your first trinket. The Intuition costs you itself (insofar as it does nothing on the board) and a trinket, while the Mage gives you a 2/2. The question that remains is whether the ongoing tutoring power of Intuition is worth the substantially worse starting position. My own experience with the deck suggests that it isn’t, but I haven’t tested with Intuition so I could certainly be wrong.

Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Intuition activation is extremely mana efficient (especially given the cost of the cards you are searching up); the strain between drawing and playing the appropriate card should be minimal, and it can even directly search for whatever color you need (I elected to not play a Seat of the Synod because of Wayfarer’s Bauble, but you can fit one in exchange for an Island).

This is certainly true. Spending U to search out a trinket is a very reasonable cost. Just like Survival of the Fittest, Artificer’s Intuition lets you play your game without tying up too much mana. Having said that, I simply can’t agree with Mike’s next claim.

All that means is that Artificer’s Intuition is the Mirrodin Block equivalent of Survival of the Fittest.

Senator, I played with Survival of the Fittest, I knew Survival of the Fittest, Survival of the Fittest was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Survival of the Fittest.

One of the strengths of Survival of the Fittest the first time around was that you could go for the appropriate two-for-one turn after turn. Wood Elves was good long before Elf and Nail, and was joined by everyone from Wall of Blossoms to Uktabi Orangutan for wave after wave of gradual card advantage. Survival didn’t need an exterior card drawing engine because of the nature of gradual card advantage and its overall ability to disrupt strategies, but Squee, Goblin Nabob was obviously welcome once he hit.

Here is where the analogy breaks down. If all Survival did was get good one-for-one answers to other good cards, it wouldn’t have been worth the investment. There were three important reasons that it was so powerful. First, as Mike discussed above, its answers were often two-for-ones or the equivalent. Wall of Blossoms”removed” a creature and replaced itself. Wall of Roots removed a creature while accelerating your mana. Wood Elves, Bone Shredder and Uktabi Orangutan are straightforward two-for-ones.

The second reason, of course, is that you were filling your graveyard to a purpose. Whether Living Death or Recurring Nightmare, Survival decks typically put creatures in their graveyard that they planned on getting back. Other creatures, like Carrionette or Krovikan Horror or Ashen Ghoul, were better in the graveyard than in your library anyway.

What this meant was that against any deck you had a tremendous strategic weapon. Against Sligh you cast a two-for-one every turn, blunting their offense with Walls and Scroll-killing monkeys and Spike Feeders, giving you plenty of time to set up a win. Against control decks, you had uncounterable and virtually unkillable Ashen Ghouls.

Flea Market is very different from Recur/Sur or Living Death decks. It can only abuse its graveyard if it has a Salvager in play, and it can only do so by getting back trinkets – you can’t pitch a Sundering Titan or Mindslaver to it and then poof it into play. Nor do any of its trinkets do anything from the graveyard.

A final difference to consider is that Survival decks had mana ramping. That meant they would often use Survival on the turn they cast it and then be able to keep using it while casting and using their creature threats. The difference between turn 1 Birds, turn 2 Survival, pitch X to get Y and turn 2 Intuition, turn 3 use it, play a cog and then either use the cog or the Intuition, but not both, should not be underestimated.

Now in Mirrodin Block, you can still go for pinpoint answer cards. Engineered Explosives is probably the best but you still have Pyrite Spellbomb for Somber Hoverguard, Scrabbling Claws for Bringer of the White Dawn or Eternal Witness, and so on. With Artificer’s Intuition in play, even without Salvagers going, your draw quality in terms of threat / answer balance should consistently exceed that of every deck but Affinity, simply due to the relative concentration of lands and spells (for a discussion of this principle, see Why Dave Price Goes Second).

This is true, but does it matter? Yes, you will draw more action then your opponent, but without a Salvagers in play you are still extremely vulnerable. A single Mindslaver will empty your hand completely (you’ll”fail” to find replacement trinkets), and Tooth and Nail can still wreck you. You are drawing more action cards, but theirs are more powerful and thus can still trump yours. Since the deck has an admitted weakness vs. Affinity, that means you have an uphill battle against two of the most important deck archetypes.

The difference is that, most of the time, you can’t rely on gradual card advantage to overcome the initial Investment of Artificer’s Intuition, drawing a redundant Artificer’s Intuition, or, to a lesser extent, a lower overall land count.

And this is where the main issue comes to light. Artificer’s Intuition doesn’t make the deck broken. Only Salvagers does that. True, Intuition and a larger number of cantrip trinkets may speed you up to drawing a Salvager, but the tempo loss may more than offset it. (In my experience, Flea Market has plenty of card-drawing to ensure that you draw one of your Salvagers in the great majority of games.)

Just as Survival adopted Squee to keep its tutor engine going, this deck has Auriok Salvagers. Salvagers is superior in that it is a big body, potential win condition, and truly infinite (but it is significantly inferior in terms of speed). If you want to, you can exhaust your opponent’s entire deck with Conjuror’s Bauble and Scrabbling Claws and win in the very late game while time dwindles on. It might actually come to decking while you are drawing gas the entire time.

I want to make an important point of clarification here, since it has come up in the forums in response to Mike’s article and because I originally misread the card myself and thought it provided decking insurance. Conjuror’s Bauble doesn’t prevent you from being decked, since you must draw a card when you use it. However, as Mike is talking about here, it does let you draw extra cards without reducing the size of your deck – that is, your deck shrinks by one card per turn (your natural draw) but not for any Bauble draws. Winning by decking is extremely unlikely unless your opponent has fired off a Slogger, but it’s true that the Bauble lets you keep drawing gas without decking yourself faster!

The interaction between Conjuror’s Bauble, Auriok Salvagers, and Artificer’s Intuition cannot be exaggerated. Conjuror’s Bauble is like a faster, but weaker, Gaea’s Blessing. It is held in check by the fact that it puts the gas on the bottom instead of anywhere else in the deck. Artificer’s Intuition Shuffles Your Deck such that you can literally draw a Condescend for every threat your opponent presents.

True (albeit a bit of an exaggeration), but is it necessary? Wayfarer’s Bauble also shuffles your deck while thinning it of lands and powering up your engine. Thus, once you have Salvagers in play you can use your Conjurer’s and Wayfarer’s Baubles to thin your deck of lands while thickening it with spells. It’s not as mana-efficient as Intuition, but since you usually want to be using a Wayfarer’s Bauble in any case that may not be relevant.

The real key to the deck is the Salvagers. Only the Salvagers let you continuously bounce a Darksteel Colossus, make your opponent discard every turn, gain five life every turn, put basic lands into play every turn, etc. Artificer’s Intuition is cute, and will definitely be great in some matchups (e.g. Ironworks, where Engineered Explosives is insane, but where you win the matchup anyway), but it isn’t going to win many games for you on its own.

Moreover, the Intuition also imposes more deckbuilding constraints. You need spare artifacts to pitch, so you have to run a lot of them even though you’re supposedly running a toolbox deck. (By comparison, Survival decks had a vastly greater variety of creatures they could run, so the toolbox was simply bigger.) This isn’t so bad in and of itself, since each trinket is a cantrip, but where my Flea Market deck has four maindeck Annul and two maindeck Last Word, Mike has three Shatters and one fewer Echoing Truth despite running three fewer lands and one more card! Since Shatter isn’t reliable before turn 3 (you will usually have to search for a source of Red mana), this and the lack of an early body seems to make the deck much more vulnerable in the early game.

In my playtesting of Flea Market, the ability to Annul on turn 1 and/or Condescend on turn 2 was critically important. Whether it was the tempo gain of countering a Simulacrum for U or just having a hard counter for Mindslaver, I can’t imagine playing the deck without Annul. At the very least I struggle to believe that the Shatters would be better as Annuls, since you have U much more reliably than R and you tend to leave mana open during your opponent’s turn. That still leaves open the question of good Gray Ogre vs. bad Survival. I respect Mike enough to build his version and test it, but my intuition screams out that his Artificer’s Intuition is wrong. It doesn’t make the deck gross without Salvager, and Salvager makes it gross on its own. Worse, it weakens the deck in the early game, which is precisely where it is the most vulnerable.

Hugs ’til Next Time,